Will the chaos in English schools really end with the Covid-19 bubble system?


As the end of Covid-19 restrictions in England approach, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has announced an alternative system for handling positive cases in English schools.

Instead of sending close contacts of infected students home to self-isolate for ten days, high schools should offer students two Covid-19 tests at the start of the fall term on a one-time basis – then the system NHS Test and Trace will take over. This is expected to take effect on July 19, when other Covid-19 measures are expected to be scrapped (although most schools are set to go their separate ways for summer vacation by then).

Face masks, social distancing, and staggered start and end times will be removed from September.

The current system, consisting of sending home the close contacts of infected students to self-isolate for ten days, is disruptive: absences quadrupled during June. Entire schools in England have even had to close for ten-day periods, as the New statesman reported last week.

Graphic by Nicu Calcea.

The latest figures show a record 641,000 students were on leave on July 1 due to Covid-19, of whom 28,000 were confirmed cases.

“There were times when there were more students self-isolating than actually in school – so more than half of the school population,” says Stephen Brierley, principal of St. Margaret’s Church of England Academy in Liverpool.

The bubble system is “unsustainable,” he says, with fewer than 300 students on site out of the total school population of 1,050 a few weeks ago. Brierley himself was slammed by the NHS app in June and forced to be absent from school for ten days – along with his entire management team, leaving two deputy principals in charge of the school for two weeks. At least 20 employees have had to self-isolate in recent weeks.

On the day we speak, he had to send 60 ninth graders home that morning on their way to school because of a positive case in their grade. It is “incredibly frustrating” for parents, and students “certainly don’t learn as much as they would on the spot”. Staff are also called upon to cover classes and supervise students receiving distance learning from teachers who have to work at home.

“We were able to go on and provide a reasonably good education for the students there, just because of the goodwill of the staff, but to be honest, I don’t think you can run a school for the long term. run on goodwill and a little blitz spirit, ”Brierley says. “I don’t see how we can continue like this – at the moment we are just making our way through to the end of the term.”

For days, the government has been hinting at an alternative system for the next school year. On June 29, Education Standards Minister Nick Gibb suggested that daily contact testing could be an “effective alternative” to the self-isolation system.

In March and April, trials of the idea began at around 200 schools and colleges across England. Instead of the current policy of quarantining contacts of positive cases for ten days, the trial tested every close contact of a positive case on-site for seven days. These were lateral flow tests, with a PCR test on the second and seventh day.

As recently as last week, the government believed that the potential benefit of this alternative system would be to maximize attendance – by preventing as many students and staff from being absent from the classroom. disrupts learning and has a ripple effect on parents in terms of childcare pressures and loss of income.

the New statesman understands that the plan would have been to combine this system with regular asymptomatic testing twice a week to make it as safe as possible.

These plans appear to have been scrapped in favor of the NHS Test and Trace – which functions as a contact tracing and testing service in society at large – taking on the work in schools as well.

It was also announced by Health Secretary Sajid Javid that from August 16, those under the age of 18 would not have to self-isolate unless they themselves tested positive for Covid -19.

While this new system superficially removes the burden on schools of contacting the trace or providing daily tests, it could still be disruptive if it ends up having more students actually catching the virus. After all, infected students will still need to isolate themselves.

This “may well accelerate the spread of the virus in schools and cause even higher levels of disruption for students and teachers”, warned Patrick Roach, general secretary of the National Association of School Masters and Teachers.

Schools have “so far been the most efficient part of the testing, tracking and tracing system,” according to teachers’ union NEU, which expresses concerns on “the effectiveness of a public test tracking and traceability system and the extent to which it will monitor cases in schools”.

While the end of the ‘bubble’ process has been hailed, principals such as Stephen Brierley lack confidence in the government’s willingness to help schools weather the pandemic.

Less than 10 percent of the recommended remedial school funding has been committed by the government (£ 1.4bn instead of £ 15bn suggested by his adviser, Kevan Collins, who resigned following the decision). In addition to this, teachers also have face a wage freeze.

“The disruption we have experienced for hundreds of students is immense, so I would definitely be in favor of safely changing the system to disrupt fewer student education,” Brierley said. “However, we have seen that the government’s education purse strings are pretty tight.

“I think the conclusion we can draw is that funding for education is unfortunately not in fashion, and therefore I very much doubt that there is any additional funding to support testing in schools. significantly. ”

He adds, “Give us the tools and we’ll finish the job. It remains to be seen whether a few early quarter tests and the NHS Test and Trace system will provide these tools.

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